Spelling variations: Haim, Chaim
Haim Abraham, my great-uncle, is remembered today as the husband of Sarah Aaronsohn, the NILI heroine. There is more to his story however, and many of the "facts" and unflattering descriptions that have appeared over the years in various books about NILI are contradicted by the facts. Here is his story.
Early Life of Haim Abraham
Haim Abraham was born on May 22, 1879*, the son of Mamo and Lea Abraham, in Rustchuk** (Rousse, Ruse), Bulgaria.
* An entry in the "libro de registros 1928-1930" from Constantinople has a slightly different date of birth: 10/05/1879.
** Surprisingly, this same document lists the place of birth as Athens.
Rustchuk was a prosperous merchant city on the bank of the Danube River, across from the Romanian border. It was home to a well-to-do Jewish population which represented about 10% of the city's inhabitants.
Haim's parents died of tuberculosis when he was still a young boy. His mother died in February 1892. Less than two years later, his father too passed away. Haim was now an orphan - he was fourteen years old.
Haim and his brothers were not abandoned but were raised by their maternal grandparents, Salomon (Mony) Jakob and Rebecca and, occasionally, by their aunts.
The only document remaining from Haim's early years is a group portrait of the four Abraham brothers, taken two years after their parents' death.
Haim, Moritz, Isak and Mony Abraham, Rustchuk, 1896.
Haim Abraham, age 17, Rustchuk, 1896.
Belying their Sepharad, "Oriental" origin (Bulgaria was still attached to the Ottoman Empire), this photo shows how Westernized the Abraham brothers were; the clothes they are wearing indicate that they belonged to the middle-class world of Jewish merchants that thrived in the late 19th century in Rustchuk.
Also confirming the pull of the Western influence on the Abraham family is the fact that Haim was called "Henri" by relatives, and he called himself "Heinrich". Likewise, his brother Moshe called himself "Maurice" and "Moritz".
Haim received a good eduction and graduated from the highly regarded Rustchuk Gymnasium. The curriculum included the following required subjects: Bulgarian, German, French, Russian, History, Geography, Arithmetic, Geometry, Algebra, Physics, Chemistry, Natural Science, Psychology, Ethics, Calligraphy and Gymnastics.
Aside from knowing Bulgarian, which was part of the required school curriculum in the late 1800's, Haim most likely spoke Ladino - the traditional language of the Sepharad community in Rustchuk. He also spoke Hebrew, reportedly fluently. Haim spoke French and German too, and probably used these two languages primarily: French was the lingua franca of the educated people of the Levant, and German was required to conduct his business.
Indeed, surviving letters exchanged later with the Aaronsohn family show that Aaron Aaronsohn wrote to Haim in Hebrew, Haim replied in German while Sarah Aaronsohn wrote to him in French.
Rustchuk, Gymnasium for boys
After graduating from the Rustchuk Gymnasium, Haim was sent by his grandparents to study business in Germany - in Dusseldorf according to Sarah Cohen Eldar.
After finishing his studies, Haim returned to Rustchuk where he began his business career at a relatively young age.
Maccabi and Zionism
Haim's return to Rushchuk marks his first known involvement with Jewish and Zionist groups, involvement which would continue for the rest of his life.
Although no details are known about Haim's time in Germany, it is likely that his first contacts with Zionism and Jewish Sports organizations began while he was a student in Germany. It is possible for instance that he was in contact with the Bar Kochba Sports Association in Berlin, organisation headed by Israel Auerbach, with whom he and his brothers would have many contacts later in Constantinople.
Haim was one of the original founders and the leader of the Rustchuk Maccabi, the Jewish Sports Association.
According to the book "Maccabi in Bulgaria":
"On February 10th 1902 a group of youngsters founded the Maccabi association in Rousse under the name "A Jewish Association for Gymnastics and Music - Maccabi". In 1905, after an acute internal struggle, the Association defined itself as Zionist.
Thanks to the active help of the Jewish community, which wholeheartedly supported the first organisation of its youths, to the effective support of the World Zionist Organisation, to the enthusiasm of the youths' management and to the skillfulness of its leader, Heinrich Abraham*, Maccabi expended its ranks from 42 to one hundred members within a single year. During this year, the Association held 10 performances, designed its members' uniforms and inaugurated its flag."
Note: Haim called himself "Heinrich" in Rustchuk after his return from Germany.
The first national conference of Maccabi associations in Bulgaria (December 25-27, 1903). Seated from right to left: Haim Abraham, Shabbat Borochov, David Kalev, Aharon Manoach. Standing: Rachamim Borochov, Molcho, Emanuel Nissimoff, Adv. Moshaiv, Aharon Danon".
Haim was about 24 years old when this photo was taken.
(Photo source: "The Maccabi in Balkan states")
According to the official Maccabi site, 1903 marked the establishment of "Maccabi Bulgaria" as head organization of all Jewish Gymnastic Clubs there. It seems probable then that, as Sarah Cohen Eldar recalls, Haim was involved in the creation of the Maccabi association as such.
The Bulgarian Maccabi was the most Zionist-leaning of the Jewish Sports organizations at the time, and in 1903, the same year this photograph was taken, gymnasts from Bulgaria performed for the delegates of the Sixth Zionist Congress. It is then quite possible that Haim attended the 1903 Congress with the Maccabi group.
(Sarah Cohen Eldar recalled that Haim had attended "several Congresses", although there is only proof of his attendance for the 1913 Congress - see below.)
Haim Abraham, Rustchuk.
(Photo courtesy of Sarah Cohen Eldar)
Haim left Rustchuk in the summer of 1908 and came to Constantinople with his younger brother Moritz.
Together they owned an import/export company called "Abraham Freres" which sold cheap German metal goods such as razor blades all over the Levant. One relative believed that they owned a factory in Germany - but this was probably not the case as I never saw any documents indicating such ownership, and this was never mentioned by my parents.
It is not known whether the company was started in Constantinople, or else predated their arrival, maybe under a different name. The earliest mentions of the name date from 1908 however, since they came to Constantinople together and seemed to be close, they may have had a business together already back in Rustchuk.
Abraham Freres, letterhead, 1918.
The business was very successful, and Haim and Moritz were described as "prosperous merchants" or "well-to-do importers". My grandfather Moritz, for whom there is much more information, led a bourgeois life, first in Constantinople, then later in Dusseldorf. There is no reason to think that Haim's life was any different.
The import business required frequent travel, both to Germany and to various Levantine countries, often taking Haim away from Constantinople.
With the Maccabi in Constantinople.
Once in Constantinople, Haim continued to be involved with a number of Jewish and Zionist organizations.
Immediately upon his arrival, Haim and his brother Maurice got involved with the local Maccabi group.
According to "HaMaccabi Be'Artzot HaBalkan" (The Maccabi in Balkan states) by David Rimon:
"A few weeks after the Young Turks revolution [July 1908, GR], the brothers Haim Abraham and Maurice Abraham, members of Maccabi Rustchuk in Bulgaria, came to Constantinople. The brothers started working immediately upon their arrival and contributed a lot of their time and energy to the development of the association. "
The Maccabi Sports Organization of Constantinople had evolved from the "Israelitischer Turnverein Konstantinopel" (the Israelite Gymnastic Association of Constantinople). It was the first Jewish sports organization ever and was founded in 1895 in Constantinople by Jews of German and Austrian extraction who had been rejected from participating in other social sport clubs, and was the first Jewish sports club in Eastern and Central Europe.
According to "Jewish German gymnastic system in Turkey until 1918" by Roman Sinkovsky:
"In 1908 the Israelitischer Turnverein changed its name to the national-Jewish "Maccabi". This renaming act followed naturally after the general assembly on May 25th 1908 when the club announced, for the very first time publicly, its national-Jewish conviction. This proposal originated by H.Abrham who declared that he was willing to hold his position (vice chairman) only in a national-Jewish turnverein."
According to Sarah Cohen Eldar:
Haim, during this chapter of his life, also invented Hebrew terms for gymnastics commands.
The following seems to confirm Sarah Cohen Eldar's recollections. Sinkovsky:
"Starting in May 1910 the gymnastic units were given in Hebrew and the club started organizing obligatory lessons of Hebrew for the members. The goal was the support of the national-Jewish idea and the prevention of the lingual and gymnastic-technical misunderstandings. The Maccabi Constantinopel was the first national-Jewish club to use Hebrew."
"Several Hebrew speaking men of Constantinople participated in creating the gymnastic terminology which was then sent to Jaffa (Palestine) for an appraisal."
"The Jewish turners celebrated the commemoration of the Maccabbees with an annual gymnastic festival. On December 31st 1910, the program was started with the Ottoman anthem followed by the Zionist anthem ("Hatikvah"). Many Turkish officials and authorities were present, and some even gave speeches in one of the three official languages of the Maccabi - Turkish, Hebrew and French."
"Maccabi Group excursion - Constantinople, 1916*". Haim, bearded, stands on the far right.
"Jewish Sport group excursion - Constantinople, 1916*". Haim, bearded, is second from the right in the middle row.
*These photos are dated 1916, however the year is probably wrong. The Constantinople Maccabi officially stopped operating in 1914. Also, Sarah Aaronsohn's letters mention Haim being away for "almost two years" in Germany, and it's unlikely that he was able to travel back and forth while the war was raging in Europe. Finally, Haim had cut his beard after his marriage to Sarah in 1914. Here, Haim looks the way he did before his marriage. These photos probably date from between 1908 and before WW1.
Haim travelled to Palestine in the Spring of 1913, as evidenced by two postcards sent to Ronya ("Rivka"), one mailed from Jerusalem, the other from Jaffa.
Two postcards from Haim Abraham to Ronya Datnowsky, 1913.
Both postcards are very brief: "Shalom Rav (lachem), Haim Abraham" - "Many Blessings (to you), Haim Abraham. (Note also that the address is simply "Abraham Freres, Constantinople."
It's not clear why he addressed these postcards to his sister-in-law and not to his brother.
The reasons for this trip are not clear, although he probably met his future wife during this trip.
In September 1913, Haim was in Vienna and attended the XI Zionist Congress, probably as part of his role with Maccabi. 1450 gymnasts participated in a mass display of Jewish Gymnasts during the Congress. He sent a commemorative card, once again to "Rivka" in Hebrew.
Postcard from Vienna - Sept 4, 1913.
Postcard from Vienna addressed to Riwka Abraham - Sept 4, 1913.
Other Jewish Organizations.
Haim's company, Abraham Freres, appears on a list of donors to the Jewish National Fund for 1908 and 1910. Although the donations appear small, they are notable for being the only donor from Constantinople in 1908.
Haim was also very involved with the Bnai Brith, to which his brother Moritz also belonged. According to a certificate dated September 22, 1913, he was a member of the B'nai B'rith Grand Lodge District XI, the jurisdiction of which covered Egypt, the Balkans and all Ottoman lands including Palestine.
Marriage to Sarah Aaronsohn
If Haim is remembered outside of his family, it is for having wed Sarah Aaronsohn, the NILI spy, the "Jewish Joan of Arc".
According to Sarah Cohen Eldar's testimony, Haim was introduced to Sarah Aaronson through Dr. Israel Auerbach who was a friend of the Aaronson family. Auerbach - a prominent member of the Jewish community in Berlin and Constantinople - was the brother-in-law of Ronya who was married to one of Haim's brothers - Moritz.
(Haim Abraham and Israel Auerbach had probably met in 1908 when they both arrived in Constantinople and joined the management of the Maccabi association.)
It is also possible that Haim had already heard about the Aaronsohn family through his sister-in-law (and my grandmother) Ronya, who had visited the Aaronsohns in Zichron Yaakov in 1910/1911.
According to Israel Auerbach, Haim had said he wanted "a girl from one of the real pioneers" that had settled Palestine.
According to the official Aaronsohn lore, Sarah had agreed to the union without even meeting Haim. However, we don't know Haim's version, and it is clear that the oft-repeated "official" version, being one-sided, is probably not the entire story.
The Aaronsohn family with Haim Abraham in Zichron Yaakov.
Haim Abraham and Sarah Aaronsohn were married on the grounds of the Athlit station, under a velvet canopy on March 31st, 1914 (4 Nissan 5674).
Sarah Cohen Eldar: "They (Haim and Miriam?) used to say that he (Haim) financed Sarah's dowry. "
Wedding, March 1914
Wedding announcement, Hapoel Hatzair. April 6, 1914.
(Photo source: Historical Jewish Press)
Sarah Haim Abraham.
After the wedding, Haim and Sarah went to Haifa where they boarded a ship to Constantinople.
Sarah Aaronsohn and Haim as young married couple.
(Photo courtesy of Sarah Cohen Eldar)
In this photo, Haim is hardly recognizable without his beard. He now looks just like his brother Moritz.
The couple lived in Haim's appartment in Galata, a neighborhood in the European half of Constantinople.
Soon after their marriage, WW1 began.
The marriage wasn't happy and wouldn't last - one even wonders why Sarah even decided to wed a man she did not know well, if at all, and with whom she was apparently not in love. The explanation usually offered by authors is that she felt obligated to get married so her younger sister Rivka could marry the man they both loved, Avshalom Feinberg.
The reality may be a little less simplistic. It seems that Sarah was an impulsive person who could make irrational choices; she may also have found the idea of marrying a wealthy businessman attractive.
However, the life she found in Constantinople didn't match her expectations, and it soon became clear to her that she and Haim were not meant to be together. She became homesick, if not downright depressed, as attested by her letters from the summer of 1915.
She also began to worry about her family who was suffering under the Turkish rule. But probably the main reason for her change of heart was learning that Avshalom Feinberg had not married her sister Rivka after all. Rather, she had gone to America, and Avshalom now wrote to Sarah that she was the one he wanted.
In the second half of August 1915, while Haim was away on a business trip to Germany and Vienna, Sarah started making arrangements to leave Constantinople and to return to her family in Zichron. She finally left on November 25, 1915, officially voicing her intention to return to Constantinople after a few months.
After returning to Zichron, Sarah wrote letters to Haim promising to come back after a few months. She asked him for money, saying she would be back for the Passover, or after she'd finished helping her family. Whether she had originally intended to come back after a few months, then changed her mind after meeting Avshalom Feinberg again, or whether she had run away with no intention of ever coming back, is not clear. It seems, however, that Haim expected at first that she would return.
Sarah, of course, joined her brother's NILI spy organization to which she now devoted her life. There are no indications that Haim was ever aware of her involvement or of the existence of NILI.
As the separation dragged on, he may have slowly realized that this wouldn't be the case after all. He must have been feeling disenchanted, and may have felt used: he apparently resisted Sarah's requests for money. At some point he considered selling the land that he had received as part of her dowry. He probably had concluded by then that there was no point in coming to Zichron if their relationship was obsolete.
At the same time, Aaron Aaronsohn continued to be close with Haim. Although he was upset about Sarah's unhappy marriage - for which Haim was universally blamed in the Aronsohn camp - he continued to correspond with Haim, acting as if nothing was wrong.
It is more than likely that this was an interested decision on Aaron's part. He reached out to Haim when he needed to borrow money; he probably took advantage of Haim's ability to send letters between Germany and Turkey during the war to relay his own messages. He may also have gathered bits of information through conversations with Haim and his brothers Moritz and Mony, as they all had a large number of contacts with the industrial, political and diplomatic world.
(See a sample of calling cards from Haim's brother Moritz.)
Even Avshalom Feinberg, despite his awkward position, did not hesitate to contact Haim when he needed help. Once again, it is not clear how aware Haim was, if at all, of Avshalom's role in Sarah's running away, and whether Haim ever felt he was being used.
With the teasing words from both Avshalom and Aaron included in a letter from Sarah (January 23rd, 1916), Haim would have had to be blind to not understand or guess what was going on:
Aussitot echappee Elle n'a fait qu'un bond
Et je vous jure: vous ne la verrez plus de longtemps
Le ciel hivernal est redevenu clair et blond
Merci a Constantinople de cet extra-Printemps
Ceci veut dire qu'on te permettra de venir la voir - et encore, c'est a dire si tu es bien gentil. Mais quant a te t'envoyer (sic) Sarati, tu ne dois plus y compter: on l'aime bien trop ici.
Absalom qui est la bonte personnifie ma reproche de t'avoir dit ce qui est ci-dessus de peur que tu ne maigrisse et deviennes encore plus rouge.
As soon as she had escaped, she made just one jump
And I swear to you: you will not see her again for a long time
The wintry sky has turned clear and blond again
Thank you Constantinople for this extra Spring
This means that we will allow you to come see her - and even, that is only if you are nice. But as for sending our Sarah back to you, you must not count on it anymore: we like her too much here.
Avshalom who is goodness personified reproaches me for having told you what is above out of fear that you will lose weight and become even redder in the face.
At the same time, it is unlikely that he was aware of Aaron's real activities at that point, so the question remains why Haim continued to be on friendly terms with the Aaronsohns and to offer his help when asked.
Haim also sent money (1000 German marks, equivalent to about $4000 in 2009) to help the Jewish community in Palestine suffering from the Turkish repression during the war.
This gift was mentioned in a letter from Sarah to her brother Aaron (August 23 1916), but instead of showing some appreciation for the gift, she displayed scorn.
"What do you say of his generosity? How it amused me. If the poor man knew how many thousands of pounds pass through my hands, and how many thousands of francs I spend, what would he say?"
Because of the war raging in Europe, it had become too difficult for Haim to run his business from Turkey, and he had temporarily relocated in Germany where he would spend a couple of years.
Based on correspondance between Haim and Aron Aaronsohn, Haim was apparently based for a while out of a hotel in Elberfeld, Germany. Haim's letter to Aaronsohn dated October 5 1916 included the following stamp:
Haim Stamp, Elberfeld, 1916.
From Hause Abraham Freres, Konstantinopel
Elberfeld, Hotel Europaisher Hof
The fact that Haim had a stamp made mentioning "Abraham Freres" with the hotel name suggests that he probably had a long-term arrangement there. Probably not incidently, Elberfeld was the location of at least one of Abraham Freres suppliers, Paulmann & Kellermann.
According to a letter from Sarah, Haim was in Germany for almost two years, and moved to Hagen, Westphalia (Germany), from where it was easier to communicate and conduct business with Constantinople. (Note: Hagen is not The Hague in the Netherlands, as wrongly stated by all authors.)
Haim was in Hagen, Westphalia (Germany), as evidenced by surviving correspondance sent by Haim to Abraham Freres in 1917. Abraham Freres did business with a number of companies based in Hagen (Lersch & Kruse, H Münzing Spedition), so just like with Elberfeld, it seems that Haim based himself close to his suppliers.
In a letter to her brother Aaron, Sarah says that Haim
"(he) has lost a lot of weight in the latest German fashion. He works hard and suffers from our being separated. He tells me how much he would like us to meet again."
Sarah was eventually captured and tortured by the Turks, commiting suicide in October 1917.
1920's - 1930's
At the end of 1922, a dispute arose between Haim and his brother Moritz and the Abraham Freres company was disolved.
Very little is known about Haim during the following decades. He continued to do business between Germany and Turkey, although he was now operating on his own.
Haim appears in the 1928-1930 Registry Book of the Spanish Consulate in Constantinople, suggesting that he may have been under the protection of the Spanish Consulate and may have held a Spanish passport at some point.
|Registry Book 1928-1930|
|Family Name||Given Name||Name of Parents||Date of Birth||Place of Birth||Profession||Registry Date|
|Abram Yacob||Hayim||Mamo and Lea||10 May 1879||Athens *||Merchant, Seh Davut h. in Tahtakale||18 Sept 1928|
It is unclear why the place of birth is recorded as Athens - whether this was a clerical error, or an intentional change, and if so, why.
His business address was: Seyh Davud Han, Tahtakale street.
Spanish Consulate Register 1929.
(Photo courtesy of Pablo Martín Asuero)
Haim, ca 1928.
(Photo courtesy of Pablo Martín Asuero)
Haim was married a second time, to Miriam Franco from Constantinople.
Sarah Cohen Eldar: "Haim got married in Constantinople before WW2. Miriam Franco had relatives in Turkey. One brother was an engineer that used to work in a big international infrastructure/construction company (roads)".
At the time of his brother Isak's death in December 1931, Haim's business address was still: Seyh Davud Han, Tahtakale street ("Tahtakale Cheich Daou'd Han.")
Haim immigrated to Palestine in 1934. He lived in Bat Galim in Haifa, a wealthy neighborhood with Bauhaus-designed private homes.
(Photo source: "The Bulgarians from Haifa")
Sarah Cohen Eldar: "In Haifa, Haim remained active in the Bulgarian-Turkish Community. He also tried to preserve the Rustchuk traditions of prayers and way of life. In typical German tradition, he also spent time in coffee houses and befriended Polish and German Jews."
He continued to do business in Germany and Turkey.
Sarah Cohen Eldar: "He continued his commerce, importing meat from Turkey(?). Miriam was always worried they wouldn't have means for existence, and so they kept four or five gold bars in a home safe."
According to Ran Aaronsohn (grand-nephew of Aron Aaronsohn), Haim stayed in contact with the Aaronsohn family, visiting the widow of Schmuel Aaronsohn (Aaron's youngest brother) in the early 50's.
Ran Aaronsohn: "Haim used to visit my grandma Miriam, Shmuel's widow, in Haifa, where (my parents) met him and his second wife between 1950 and 1953. They remember that they were impressed by his good manners and kindness. [...] My grandpa passed away in spring 1950."
Aside from his house in Bat Galim, Haim and his wife Miriam owned some land located on 8 Bialik Street. The British company Shell made a generous offer to purchase the lot, but his answer was "I refuse to sell this property to strangers!"
He was then approached by the leaders of the Bulgarian Community who convinced him to donate that property for a synagogue. Upon his approval, they established the "Association of the Trustees of Beit Haim Abraham" ("Agudat Ne'emanei Beit Haim Abraham") in August 1945.
(Photo source: "The Bulgarians from Haifa")
The association struggled to raise sufficient money to build the synagogue, causing delays to the actual construction.
Haim died on January 17, 1954 (Shvat 13 5714), and never saw the conclusion of the construction of the building.
In his will, Haim donated all his money to various charities in Haifa and to Beit Haim Abraham.
Beit Haim Abraham, Haifa. The Community Center for Bulgarian immigrants in Haifa, named after Haim.
(Photo source: "The Bulgarians from Haifa")
His wife Miriam died on December 12, 1958 (Tevet 1 5719).
Memorial plaques in the Beit Haim Abraham Synagogue
(Photo source: "The Bulgarians from Haifa")
In everlasting memory
to the great public activist
enterprising and full of good activities
generous founder and manager of the association
Haim Avraham of blessed memory
Died on Shvat 13 5714
In everlasting memory
to our dear Miriam Haim Abraham
wife of the generous Haim Abraham
died on Tevet 1 5719
- Special Thanks:
- Sarah Cohen Eldar, Iris and Yaakov Nir, for making her journal available, answering my many questions and providing photos.
- Dr. Gilad Rosenberg, for additional information, photos and translations.
- Michael Rosenberg, for the copy of the book "The Bulgarians from Haifa".
- Beit Aaronsohn, for access to the Aaronsohn/Abraham correspondence.
- Ran Aaronsohn, for sharing his family's recollections of Haim Abraham.
- Pablo Martín Asuero, for providing me with copies of the 1928-1930 Registry of the Spanish Consulate in Constantinople.
- Rony Dror, from the Yosef Yekutieli Maccabi Sports Archive.
- References and Publications:
- Journal. Unpublished.
- Jüdische Turnbewegung - Jewish German Gymnastic System in Turkey until 1918" (pdf - link). Journal of Human Sciences, Vol 6, No 2 (2009)
- "HaMaccabi Be'Artzot HaBalkan" (The Maccabi in Balkan states). 1945 .
- Jüdische Turnzeitung 1900-1921. Neuhrsg. (1977). Walluf/Neudeln. Sändig .
- "Zionism, Nationalism and the Emergence of the Judische Turnerschaft". Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook - 1983. .
- The Bulgarians from Haifa. Ass. of Beit Haim Abraham Trustees. 1998.
- Diary (Yoman Aaron Aaronsohn: 1916-1919, Tel Aviv. Karni. 1970) Beit Aaronsohn (French text original).
- The Nili Spies. Hogarth Press, London, 1959.
- The Gideonites. Funk and Wagnalls. New York, 1968.
- A Spy for Freedom. E. P. Dutton & Co., Lodestar, 1984.
- The Aaronsohn Saga. Gefen Publishing House Ltd, 2007 (original Hebrew version: 2000).
- A Strange Death. Public Affairs, 2005.
- Lawrence and Aaronsohn. Penguin, 2007.
- Aaronsohn's Maps. Harcourt, 2007.